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Hobbs wants to impose new restrictions on private, parochial schools in voucher programs

Posted 1/2/24

PHOENIX — Unable to get the Republican-controlled Legislature to roll back a universal voucher program, Gov. Katie Hobbs now wants the lawmakers who approved the expansion to now impose some new restrictions on the private and parochial schools that accept them.

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Hobbs wants to impose new restrictions on private, parochial schools in voucher programs


PHOENIX — Unable to get the Republican-controlled Legislature to roll back a universal voucher program, Gov. Katie Hobbs wants the lawmakers who approved the expansion to now impose some new restrictions on the private and parochial schools that accept them.

And the bottom line is to require schools using taxpayer dollars to educate youngsters to have to conform to many of the same standards now imposed on public schools.

The laundry list of proposals includes everything from background checks and minimum education requirements for teachers to making vouchers off limits unless a student first attends a public school for at least 100 days. It also has what Hobbs calls a measure to preclude “price gouging,” with private schools raising their rates once the vouchers became available to all, regardless of special circumstances or financial needs.

But the plan drew immediate criticism from Jenny Clark, who became an advocate for empowerment scholarship accounts, as they are more formally known, after having to find alternatives to public schools for her three children with special needs. She said none of this is the governor’s — or the government’s — business.

“The bottom line is that Gov. Hobbs does not trust parents,” Clark said.

“She doesn’t trust parents to decide what’s best for our kids,” she continued. “Me, personally? I trust parents, not the government.”

And House Speaker Ben Toma, who was the moving force behind creating the universal voucher program, pronounced the plan dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

“Empowerment scholarship accounts are wildly popular with Arizona parents because they leverage private sector solutions to offer the best educational opportunities for their children,” said the Peoria lawmakers. As of Tuesday, 72,949 students had signed up to have the state provide scholarships for their children to attend private and parochial schools.

“Gov. Hobbs and Democratic Party legislators now seek to strangle ESAs and private education with bureaucracy and regulation,” Toma continued. “I won’t allow that to happen.”

But Sen. Ken Bennett, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said some of what the governor is proposing makes sense.

Consider, he said, that requirement for background checks and fingerprints.

“A bad actor in a school who molests a child and has their teaching credential canceled ... they shouldn’t be able to run over and become a tutor in the ESA program,” said the Prescott Republican.

“But we’re not going to layers of bureaucratic red tape,” he said, like the governor’s proposal that only students who spend at least 100 days in a public school can get a voucher. And Bennett said her proposal to set price caps on private schools is a definite nonstarter.

“We let the market forces control,” he said, pointing out state lawmakers have balked over the years at price controls for items in even broader demand, like gasoline.

“I’m not inclined to try to do something in educational costs that we don’t do in gasoline and other things,” Bennett said.

Hobbs is promoting her plan as a necessary safeguard over the nearly $1 billion in state dollars that will go out this school year in vouchers.

“The ESA program lacks accountability and transparency,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

“With this plan, we can keep students safe, protect taxpayer dollars, and give parents and students the information they need to make an informed choice about their education,” she continued. “Arizonans deserve to know their money is being spent on educating students, not on handouts to unaccountable schools and unvetted vendors for luxury spending.”

All that, however, is based on the question of exactly who’s money this is.

When vouchers were first proposed more than a decade ago they were challenged as an illegal giveaway of public funds to private and parochial schools. But courts said these actually are funds given to parents who do not have children in public schools to instead find an alternate education.

Among the first students who became eligible were those who had special needs their parents said were not being addressed in public schools.

Hobbs, in her new plan, says any private school that accepts voucher dollars for tuition should also has to provide accommodations and services in accordance with an “individualized learning plan” specific to that student. That is what is required of public schools.

Clark, whose three children are dyslexic, said one thing lost in that is that public schools get certain federal funds for students with special needs. That is not available to private schools.

But even if that were not the case, she said, the problem with what Hobbs wants is even more basic.

“Ultimately, it comes back to her not trusting parents to decide what’s best for our children,” Clark said.

“When we choose to leave a public school, accept an empowerment scholarship for our children’s education, we are now saying, ‘We know what we want,’” she said. “We’re going to choose this private school that may or may not have certain services.”

Even the governor’s plan to have fingerprinting, background checks and minimum education requirements, Clark said, is unacceptable.

“That’s an attempt by Gov. Hobbs to try to hyper-regulate private schools, stifle competition, turn them into public schools, discourage private schools from participating in the empowerment scholarships,” she said. “And Arizona families do not co-parent with Katie Hobbs.”

That question of “price gouging” is new to the idea of universal vouchers.

Prior to last year, vouchers were limited to specific situations, ranging from students with special needs to those who were in foster care, living on Indian reservations or attending schools rated D or F.

What universal vouchers did is remove all the preconditions. And that  opened the program — and the vouchers which are about $7,300 for students without special needs — to anyone, including those whose parents already had the ability to pay the tuition and fees.

A study by The Hettinger Report found nearly all private schools in Arizona raised their prices between 2022 and 2023. It also found increases of 10% or more in at least some grades in some schools. And five of the 55 schools it studied found tuition went up by more than 20%.

What Hobbs wants is a state law limiting year-over-year price hikes to the rate of inflation.

Such a move would be unprecedented here. Unlike some states that have regular hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, Arizona never has enacted a “price gouging” law that precludes sellers of any product or service from taking advantage of the situation and raising rates.

But Christian Slater, the governor’s press aide, said Hobbs believes the government has a role in ensuring state funds that go into the vouchers are being properly spent.

That is the same argument he has for some of the governor’s other plans.

One, for example, would expand the authority of the state Auditor General’s Office to monitor and report how voucher funds are spent by private schools. Slater said this mirrors the practice of that office to look at how public schools are spending their money.

“Arizonans deserve to know their money is being spent on educating students, not on handouts to unaccountable schools and unvetted vendors for luxury spending,” the governor said in prepared remarks. But Slater had no specific answer for what expenses would and would not be considered legitimate.

A parallel proposal would require the Department of Education to manually examine and approve the use by parents of voucher dollars not for private school tuition and fees but instead either home school their children or pay tuition out of their own pockets and use the voucher dollars instead for what they say are other educational purposes,

ABC 15 News reported last year that its review of such purchases included buying pianos for homes, more than 100 passes to Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, $3,400 for a single transaction at a golf store, and a total of $1.2 million for martial arts training.

Bur state schools chief Tom Horne, whose agency administers the voucher program — and who has been a vocal supporter of vouchers — said Hobbs’ proposal for greater scrutiny of spending by parents is unnecessary.

“My office already reviews all expense requests regardless of amount, unlike the previous superintendent who approved many frivolous requests,” he said, saying his agency rejected more than 12,000 such ESA purchase orders.

But Horne declined to take a position on the rest of the plan.

“My job is to administer the ESA program in line with state law,” he said. “If changes are made, the Department of Education will follow them.”

Democratic legislative leaders, in their own prepared responses, lined up behind Hobbs.

“Republicans knew that an unaccountable subsidy for private schools was more than our taxpayers can afford,” said House Minority Leader Lupe Contreras. “This plan provides common-sense guardrails and fiscal responsibility that this program — that any taxpayer-funded program — should have.”